by Joe Kay
Associated Press Writer

CINCINNATI (AP)—No trip to the commissioner’s office over this one. James Harrison’s final hit was high, hard and totally textbook.

Decided a game, too.

Harrison helped knock the ball loose from Jordan Shipley on Cincinnati’s final play, preserving a 27-21 win on Monday night that kept the Pittsburgh Steelers sharing first place in the AFC North at the season’s midpoint.

LIGHTS OUT—Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (43) levels Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens on a reception on the Bengals’ last drive in their 27-21 loss to the Steelers Nov. 8, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Credit Harrison and Pittsburgh’s rib-smacking defense again.

The Steelers (6-2) made it through Ben Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension by letting their defense dominate games, winning three of them. On Monday night, it seemed there would be no need for a late defensive stand after Antwaan Randle El’s touchdown pass on a trick play made it 27-7 to open the fourth quarter.

Somehow, Cincinnati (2-6) made it come down to Harrison and that nasty defense holding on.

“As always,” said Roethlisberger, whose late interception turned it into a game. “They’re so good, so much fun to watch. I told them, ‘That’s my fault for the pick. It made it close, and I shouldn’t have let it happen.’ But they bailed me out.”

The Steelers built that big early lead with the help of Cincinnati’s many gaffes—fumbling the opening kickoff, having a punt blocked, missing two field goals. The Bengals got a chance to make an amazing comeback after Roethlisberger’s interception set up Terrell Owens’ second touchdown catch, and Steelers kicker Jeff Reed missed a 46-yard field goal try that would have sealed it with 3:59 to go.

At that point, the Steelers started getting a bad feeling.

Last year, Cincinnati pulled one out that was eerily similar. Palmer’s touchdown pass with 14 seconds left sent the Bengals to a 23-20 win that was a springboard to their perfect run through the division.

“They had Carson Palmer and company with timeouts,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “And that’s a horror movie and we’ve seen that before.”

Palmer led the Bengals downfield with the help of a wacky play. His pass to Cedric Benson was tipped, but the running back made a juggling catch for a 16-yard gain on third-and-long. Chad Ochocinco’s only catch of the game moved it to the 12-yard line, where it was third-and-5.

Uh oh.

Palmer tried to get it to Owens in the end zone, but the Steelers had it covered. Then, he saw Shipley open over the middle around the 5-yard line, in place for a first-down catch with 34 seconds to go.

“I ran in the middle of two guys,” Shipley said. “I felt like I had it, and they knocked it out of there.”

Harrison hit him with his right shoulder. Ike Taylor helped strip the ball from the other side.

“This is how the Steelers play ball,” Taylor said. “We might get a blowout here and there. But we’re always in tough, close ballgames. As a defense we just want to close them out. That’s what we did tonight.”

Fitting that Harrison had a shoulder in the decisive play. Commissioner Roger Goodell summoned him to his office last week after his late hit on Drew Brees, wanting to talk about the league’s crackdown on flagrant fouls. That hit brought Harrison his third fine of the season, pushing his total to $100,000.

Angered by the league’s crackdown, Harrison had talked about retiring briefly. On Monday, he helped save a game.

“It’s really quite typical of James and the kind of play that he provides us,” Tomlin said. “He’s a great football player. He’s a detailed guy and a diligent worker. Much has been said about him of late — that’s not the James we know. He makes timely plays for us. We’d like him to be measured on plays like that rather than unfortunate penalties.”

The Bengals had described the game as their final chance to save their season. Instead, the defending champs lost their fifth in a row. It’s the 14th time in the last 20 years that they’re out of contention at the season’s midpoint.

“I feel we might be the best 2-6 team I’ve been on,” Owens said.

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